Security: How Do We Know
When Not To Go Too Far?
Originally published in Messages, No. 42, Oct.1991
Somalia and Liberia persistently bring us back to the issue of security. Not that we had ever set it aside, but because in these instances it remains particularly unresolved. There is no façade of legality to appeal to, no army which might be bound by the Geneva Convention, no constraints on those who carry Kalashnikovs. There are no politics, ultimately, behind these unsolvable conflicts—too much clan mentality, too much gang rage. There are no politics—at least none that can be readily comprehended and deciphered in binary terms that would apply elsewhere on the planet. As superficial as it might have been, the ideological threat of the Cold War was in a sense reassuring. It gave structure to a system we meant to transcend in order to focus solely on the victims, and we could assume our counterparts in the dialogue cared about their international image and credibility. Not that we mourn the Cold War or feel nostalgic for a system peopled by obscure despots, liberator-guerrillas, and captive populations. Good riddance, Siad Barre and Samuel Doe!
Nevertheless, Somalia and Liberia are troubling examples of forgotten wars, from Mozambique to Afghanistan—privatized, criminalized conflicts, continually recurring and degenerating along clan, ethnic, or religious lines. The values we claim to represent are barely audible above the din of these clashing identity groups. To be sure, there has never really been such a thing as humanitarian immunity. But the risk now is of our being perceived by the bearers of Kalashnikovs as no more than foreigners with an odd way of conducting themselves. Naturally, we mean to change that perception, convinced as we are that “the South” is not some no-man’s-land where our teams can land and fan out to provide medical treatment for bodies, just as parachutists are deployed by others to extract their nationals from a situation of pervasive barbarity. Liberia and Somalia are not peopled with cardboard figures. They are men and women we can help, with whom we want to work and interact, even if we are the last ones remaining, who simply will not give up all for lost.
In any event, if we are to remain, we must not lose sight of the hazards of war anyone would normally try to guard against. In these crisis situations it is essential to protect oneself and to prepare for any eventuality. It is all the more important to realize that we are outsiders—moreover that we carry dollars—and that our perspective on events takes us precisely where populations are the most threatened, the injured most numerous, and the combatants the most nervous. The wish to reach civilians trapped by fighting should be weighed against the concern to protect ourselves so we may continue to act. It is up to us to be clearheaded enough to limit our risks and know exactly when not to go too far.
But security is not confined to prudent measures and evacuation procedures alone. It is the result of day-to-day conduct, of understanding a society, of being able to size up situations—situations that are fluid, volatile, and uncertain, their twists and turns difficult to grasp. Seemingly inextricable crisis situations, where it is necessary to perceive the dynamics without getting bogged down in the complexity … Knowledge of the context does not mean much, in the end, if we cannot move ahead with greater assuredness and effectiveness. It is useless to understand, if in doing so we are to lose all objectivity, all perception of what is at stake, or any sense of what our position is. Either from habit or familiarity, one could forget that we are not present merely by chance. We are there to help people trapped by war, without discriminating in any way.
In these conflicts that concern us in their human dimensions alone, the worst that could happen is that we be perceived as an interested party. Neutrality is not only an essential principal in and of itself; it is a significant element in terms of our security. So it should be on clear display—in the spirit of Médecins Sans Frontières’s charter and the Geneva Convention, of course, but most important on a day-to-day basis, in the impartiality of our actions, the evenhandedness of our interventions, and the independence of our decisions. We cannot be sure, in any event, that this position of neutrality will truly be taken into account by warring parties. Nor can we be sure it will be understood in Somalia and Liberia. In muddled situations such as these, where the number of protagonists continues to increase and war is fueled by plunder, one must know how to distance oneself from all of the parties to the conflict. One must also know how to earn respect on the basis of impartial actions and predictable conduct. In short, one must know how to guard against any form of excess, aided by that instinct we call common sense.
Have You Heard About Somalia?
Originally pubished in Croissance, March 1992
On January 27, 1991, the defeated Siad Barre’s flight from Mogadishu, after violent fighting, was eclipsed in large measure by the furor surrounding the Gulf War. One year later, celebrating that anniversary would occur to absolutely no one. In reality the fighting did not stop, and recent developments inspire little optimism. The bloody dictatorship of Siad Barre has given way to a power struggle that is pushing the country into a spiral of violence and destruction. No one knows exactly what remains of Somalia itself, any longer—between the North, which has declared its independence, and the numerous territories formed and reshaped in every corner of the country whenever fighting flares up again. Any semblance of rule of law has thoroughly vanished in the capital, which is now a battleground for clans wrangling over the spoils of a state that has long since collapsed.
The fighting that began in mid-November between the followers of President Ali Mahdi Mohammed and those of General Mohammed Farrah Aidid has succeeded in reducing Mogadishu to a stretch of ruins, abandoned to looting and random gunfire. And—everywhere and forever—pickup trucks, the poor man’s armored car, shuttle to and fro, spinning the web of this ceaseless fighting. Mogadishu is empty, abandoned by its residents, who have sought refuge in the outskirts of the capital. The nomads, with their weapons and clan mentality, hold the city now. Still, to every cloud its silver lining: the clan mentality, hardly helpful in reaching a political solution, nonetheless has its own rules and boundaries. Or at least let us hope so—because as the conflict further degenerates, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between fighting clans and rampaging gangs.
The consequences for the population in this forgotten conflict are tragic. Uprooted people crisscross the entire country, shifting about to avoid the fighting or seeking refuge in neighboring countries in an effort to find some means of subsistence and a measure of safety. Displaced people and refugees number in the hundreds of thousands, and there are tens of thousands of wounded. In the city of Mogadishu alone, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimates the number of wounded treated at clinics since mid-November at 20,000, and the number of deaths at more than 8,000. Graves line the roadways. Hospitals are swamped—when they are not being shelled—and no one can say what will become of the displaced people in the areas surrounding the capital and all across the country.
In the absence of any international presence—aside from Egyptian and Sudanese diplomatic representatives—only a handful of humanitarian organizations remain as witnesses to the Somali ordeal. Their principal dilemma in Mogadishu, like elsewhere, is gaining access to civilians trapped by the fighting. More than elsewhere, however, their freedom of action in Mogadishu is sharply limited by the intransigence of the warring parties. In the absence of any neutral force, the atmosphere of danger is such that humanitarian organizations are being forced to rely on the clans themselves for protection. As indispensable as it is, this protection can quickly become a straitjacket. There is only a hazy distinction, from our “protectors’” perspective, between concern for our security and the desire to monopolize our aid, the better to spare us unpleasant encounters with the representatives of other clans.
Aid is an all-important prize for warring parties in Somalia; it is also a vital resource for populations under threat—particularly food aid, which is difficult to relay. Because of this it is essential to remain accessible to everyone, to assess needs with complete independence, and to respond to those needs without discrimination of any kind. So we need to go back and forth between the front lines on a regular basis, resupply medical structures regardless of which side of the lines they are on, work to keep hospitals neutral, arrange that they be weapon free, guarantee unimpeded access to medical care for the wounded of all the warring parties, gain access to displaced people on the periphery of the country, and attempt to get food to the neediest.
For a year now, MSF has been trying to maintain and carve out more space for humanitarian action. Without it, these people would be hopelessly abandoned amid war and famine. But our efforts will be in vain if they are not taken up, in turn, by the international community. Somalia is at the edge of the abyss. Every attempt must be made to reinitiate a dialogue and foster a climate that allows humanitarian aid to be distributed effectively to those population groups most urgently in need.
The Sudanese Conflict
Originally published in the quarterly Catholica, February 1993, www.catholica.fr
Catholica: For brief periods, Somalia and Bosnia made the ratings jump. Not so with Sudan. Is there nothing special at all going on there?
François Jean: Since 1983 the country has been devastated, once again, by war. Sudan has actually been through a series of wars, each rooted in the deep ethnic, religious, and historical cleavage between the Arab-Muslim north and the black-African south, which is mainly Christian and animist. The south has always been placed at a disadvantage economically in addition to being plundered, to a certain extent, by people from the north who have little interest in sharing resources.
The first war broke out even before the country’s independence in 1955 and lasted until 1972, the year the Addis Ababa accords were signed. Then there was a period of respite, but this was relatively brief. Fighting set in again as early as 1983; just recently it has reached such a level of intensity that it is now reasonable to speculate if it is not tantamount to genocide. The number of victims is estimated at about 10 percent of the south’s population—or roughly six hundred thousand people out of six million. There have been three overall phases in this exceptionally bitter war. In the first, the conflict was “normal,” although it did bring about major population displacements. The second, so-called “democratic,” phase coincided with the coming to power of Sadek al-Mahdi. The new regime formulated a strategy based on exploiting ethnic antagonisms, and their first step was to arm tribal militias. There has always been friction between the shepherds of the north and those of the south, taking the form of raids and cattle theft. The regime deliberately stoked these antagonisms, arming a group of Islamized nomads known as the Baggara to do battle with those in the south who allegedly—and this is not entirely untrue—provide the base of support for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) created in 1983 by John Garang, then an officer in the Sudanese Army. This was a period of large-scale massacres, of which little was really known because they occurred in a remote, hard to reach region. Also, it must be added, there was a very serious famine following the 1988 drought that, unlike the famine in Ethiopia, has never been discussed.
A new phase began in 1989 when, to everyone’s surprise, the National Islamic Front came to power. The Egyptians, in any case, greeted the change with a certain satisfaction, believing the new regime would be ready to negotiate an end to the conflict. But the reality was entirely different—it turned out to be no more than an Islamist takeover of power led by Hassan al-Turabi. Far from being abandoned, the previous regime’s use of tribal militias instead became more widespread. At this time, a policy of mass deportation was implemented, as well, with the aim of transforming the nation’s ethnic and religious balance. Over a million and a half people fleeing war in the south gravitated to the outskirts of Khartoum, seeking a measure of security and some means of subsistence. Under the pretext of urban planning and environmental conservation, the government targeted shantytowns, clearing them with bulldozers. The now-homeless inhabitants were forcibly transferred to the desert and left to the mercies of Islamist organizations, the only groups authorized to work in the new camps. They say that one of the masterminds of this policy was recently honored at the Rio Environmental Summit. (Something similar happened during the massive 1998 famine—the world’s attention was captivated far more by three whales trapped in ice than by hundreds of thousands of people dying in southern Sudan.) At the same time, there were also massive displacements from the north to the south, particularly in southern Kordofan. Because it is so difficult to gain access to Sudan, it is not always easy to confirm information, but it seems quite certain that, far from being solely attributable to the war, these displacements are part of an overall plan.
And what are the main features of the current regime?
FJ: This regime means to re-instruct everyone in the principles of Islam. Sudan was once organized around the major Islamic religious orders. The regime wants to get rid of every form of popular religion and go back to the letter of the law of Islam—as revised and corrected by their own Islamic ideology. Yet, insofar as the regime is addressing the nation’s economic and technological development, it may, from the outside, appear to be a modern or modernistic country. As a result, Sudanese specialists find themselves in a highly equivocal position vis-à-vis the regime. As experts, they do not want to lose their access to the field and are prepared to keep silent if it means they can continue their research. The regime also holds a certain fascination for them, particularly from the viewpoint of its rhetoric regarding economic efficiency: the explanation that the trains run on time is used to justify the ruling order—the old argument used by admirers of Mussolini in his day … For my part, I can’t help but reply, “Yes, they certainly do run on time—packed with deportees.” So there is a very heavy ideological presence, and the repression affects everyone, even Muslims. In Darfur, western Sudan, an uprising recently occurred that reinforced government fears of spreading unrest among the black-African population, especially Islamized-black Africans. The repression is appalling. The government is terribly afraid of the SPLA’s influence taking root among these Muslim populations. Additionally, there is a deliberate intent on the part of the Khartoum government to impede any aid from reaching threatened populations. So United Nations officials are constantly being given the runaround: they are forever waiting for travel or flight authorizations. The administrative and bureaucratic obstacles are such that they thoroughly undermine any attempt to assist populations.
Having said all this, how would you explain the widespread lack of interest in the Sudanese issue?
FJ: One of the reasons, surely, is the impenetrability of the Khartoum regime. We’re dealing with a truly oppressive atmosphere. No one knows what is going on, because no one has access to the most endangered populations. All we know is that there are massive population displacements and forced deportations, and that hundreds of thousands of people are threatened by famine. Media coverage is important to build public awareness, but in Sudan’s case there really seems to be no interest and, far more, a deliberate intent to conceal the seriousness of the situation.
Interview by Stéphen de Petiville
What Role for MSF?
Originally published in Messages, No. 60, May 1993
Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia, Angola … so begins the long list of situations that raise fundamental questions about our capacity for action in environments undergoing radical change. It is certainly not the first time we have been confronted with genuine difficulties. During our more than 20 years of interventions in every kind of crisis zone, we have had to overcome serious security problems, the indifference of the international community, and the intransigence of warring parties in order to bring medical relief to people at risk. Our only passport has been our independence and impartiality, and our only safety net, when faced with the mobilization of humanitarian aid by political actors, has been to keep a clear head.
But we have never been in the line of fire to such a degree as we are now or so often had to question what our role should be. We saw it in Somalia: recruiting guards, at the risk of adding fuel to the war economy; then, faced with famine, appealing to the international community at the risk of possible military intervention and in the end being smothered by excessive protection in an atmosphere of total confusion. Along with Yugoslavia, Somalia is probably one of the most remarkable examples of the difficulty of delivering humanitarian aid in an environment of fragmenting conflicts and an increasing number of intervening parties.
Since the Cold War, crises have both increased in number and changed in character. Political or ideological opposition movements have given way to religious, nationalist, and ethnic antagonisms. Guerilla movements, deprived of superpower support, have splintered into a myriad of armed groups, operating in a purely predatory fashion. The values we claim to represent are barely audible above the din of these clashing identities. Humanitarian organizations are more than ever seen as targets, and access to victims is more and more problematic. What is to be done? Can we be satisfied with distributing medicines if we risk no longer being able to guarantee our continuous presence on the ground? Must we resort to armed protection, at the risk of sacrificing our principles for the sake of short-term pragmatism? Should we appeal for international intervention, at the risk of further blurring the line between military and humanitarian action? Governments are indeed more than ever inclined to occupy humanitarian terrain. In an odd reversal, wars have become ever more privatized and criminalized, while the humanitarian sphere is increasingly militarized and government focused … The growing involvement of governments raises the question of how we should position ourselves vis-à-vis other actors in an increasingly crowded humanitarian field. How do we interact and, if necessary, collaborate with governments and the United Nations without losing our independence and freedom of action? How do we avoid the lumping together, the domination, even, of the humanitarian by the political? What do we expect of governments and the international community?
The days are gone when, faced with a tragic situation, we could be satisfied with calling for an international response. We are entering a more complex environment, and we must now make our expectations more explicit. We also need to rethink our overall strategic goals, our capacity for action, our methods of intervention, and where and when we take a stand. MSF’s upcoming general assembly on May 15–16 gives us the opportunity to have this important debate on the role of Médecins Sans Frontières in these new crisis zones.
Originally published in the journal La Provence, December 20, 1997
Murders in Burundi, Chechnya, Rwanda … kidnappings in Chechnya and Tajikistan. For several months such tragedies have been relentlessly on the rise; now humanitarian aid workers often pay dearly indeed for their efforts to deliver assistance to endangered populations.
There has been a very real deterioration of security conditions for international organizations intervening in crisis situations. Yet this is not due to any radical change in the nature of conflicts themselves. Contrary to a widely held notion, the end of the Cold War has not brought us a period of disorder, anarchy, or chaos and violence that is bloodier, more senseless, or more irrational than ever before. Disillusioning though this may be for those who are nostalgic for a lost golden age, immunity for humanitarian workers has never existed, and relief organizations intervening in civil wars or internal conflicts have always faced a multitude of obstacles—as well as threats—in their efforts to deliver aid to victims of conflict or repression.
Still, these troubles have increased in number in recent years, especially during that most perilous phase immediately following a cease-fire (which, in theory, should usher in a period of peace …)—a time when some armed groups begin to break down into detached, privatized, criminal gangs, reorganized on the basis of looting and racketeering. But the principal difference relates back to the aid system’s remarkable evolution over the last decade. At the close of the 1980s, the preponderance of international aid for crisis situations was distributed on the peripheries of conflicts in refugee camps, with only a few rare humanitarian organizations intervening directly to aid people trapped by the fighting. Since then the number of relief operations in conflict zones has rapidly increased; there is now a profusion of UN programs and nongovernmental initiatives, Blue Helmets and multinational forces. At the same time, emergency aid budgets have grown sixfold, encouraging the blossoming of organizations without experience in crisis situations.
A consequence of this rapid growth in the number of organizations of all sorts now present in arenas of conflict—private, state based, or even military—is that local populations and armed groups now have a more muddled perception of humanitarian actors. In some countries such as Somalia or Bosnia, humanitarian organizations are confused with the military. Elsewhere they are believed to be associated with their governments. In every case they are perceived to be rich and Western …
Under these conditions, it is more important than ever for humanitarian organizations to keep their distance with regard to the military, to outwardly demonstrate their independence with respect to political authorities, to leave established international circles in the capital cities behind in order to be nearer to the people—in sum, to reaffirm the core principles of humanitarian action: impartiality, independence, and solidarity. It is also fundamentally important in these crises, which in fact are not “humanitarian” but very much political in their violence and arbitrariness, to display clearheadedness, prudence, and determination, in order to preserve ourselves and protect the victims.
Mission Impossible …
on The Back Roads Of Chechnya
Originally published in Messages, No. 87, September-October 1996
Grozny, Chechnya: François Jean of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Fondation and Vincent de Bellefroid, MSF head of mission, attempted to aid hundreds of civilians trapped in the besieged capital. Supported by the inhabitants—and in spite of obstacles raised by the Russian military—they were able to provide medical relief to health care facilities still in operation …
How did Grozny fall at the beginning of August?
Fighters infiltrated Grozny during the night of August 6 and captured most of the capital within two days. But there was still some very hard fighting for more than a week around the pro-Russian government buildings and entrenched camps where federal forces had fallen back. The response of the Russian troops was, unfortunately, typical of their practices since the beginning of the conflict: massive artillery shelling and aerial bombing, random firing, sniper harassment, etc. These blind reprisals caused significant casualties—hundreds of civilians were killed or wounded and the residents of the worst-affected neighborhoods hid in their cellars for days on end without water or electricity and no way of evacuating the injured.
What kind of medical treatment did the injured have access to during the fighting?
Opportunities for providing treatment were once again quite limited for three basic reasons: first, the difficulty of transporting the injured in a city fragmented by fighting and leveled by bombing; second, the condition of the hospitals; five days after the start of the fighting, most of the surgical units—except for Hospitals Three and Five and one temporary structure set up in a school—had either been evacuated or destroyed; and third—and this goes back to the same problem—the lack of security in the health facilities. During the tensest periods, most of the injured weren’t staying in the hospitals. They were transported there—whenever possible—and operated on, but then sent right back home or evacuated to peripheral units. For example, when we went to Polyclinic 6 for the first time, six seriously injured persons, two of them little girls about 10 years old, arrived within a half an hour. But when we went back the next day there was no one left. The unit was empty.
How do you explain why people avoided the health facilities?
The hospitals weren’t secure—it wasn’t safe to be there—for two main reasons. First, health facilities weren’t spared by the bombing. In Chechnya a hospital is a target like any other, and maybe more so … For example, Hospital Four was attacked from the very first day of fighting even though, according to different sources, there was no fighting in that neighborhood. According to our sources, Russian helicopters targeted the hospital deliberately (one of the rockets made a direct hit on the operating theatre, killing three nurses, three doctors, and the person on the operating table); it was partially destroyed and then evacuated. The second reason why patients, and particularly the men, wouldn’t stay in the hospitals was that they were not provided with protection. On the fifth day of fighting a Russian unit went into Hospital Nine looking for injured people likely to become combatants. The troops’ arrival provoked clashes with combatants present in the neighborhood, and the hospital had to be evacuated under very difficult circumstances—nurses were killed, some of the injured were scattered among neighboring houses. Others, along with some of the staff, took shelter in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation …
What activities were you able to keep up during the combat phase?
When we got caught up in the war we were in the midst of relaunching MSF activities in Chechnya … We ended up trapped by the fighting without much in the way of resources, but we decided not to stay on the sidelines. We managed to get out of the city on foot and reach a neighboring republic, Ingushetia, where we had our medical stocks. We shuttled back and forth that way between Nazran and Grozny for 15 days, getting medical and surgical aid into the Chechen capital and getting emergency supplies to the rare health facilities that were still operating.
What was the attitude of the Russian military?
We were dealing with a deliberate intent to block any aid from getting into the capital. We were facing the same obstacles we had faced last March and April in the cities of Sernovodsk and Samashki, where humanitarian aid was prohibited for many, many weeks after the bombings and the “cleaning up” operations … We were blocked at Russian checkpoints set up on the principal access routes to Grozny, so we had to take back roads and cut across fields, or go on foot, blending in with the population. We were interacting closely with people all during that time, working our contacts and looking for allies on the same side—and we found them.
A lot of people helped us, they could see we were sticking our own necks out—that we were involved and determined. Even if our mission was limited (but could we have done any more with full charters?), it was an amazing collective experience; we gave hundreds of injured the chance to be treated.
What were your operational goals after Russia and Chechnya signed their peace accord?
After the August 22 cease-fire the situation became more and more stable. We left Grozny and picked up where we left off with our projects. We got our project in Chatoi going. Of course, relaunching our mission in Chechnya means we have to be ready to respond to any emergency situation that might again arise in this devastated country.
The Problems Of Medical Relief
In Chechen War Zones
Originally published in Central Asian Survey, 15 (2), 1996
Médecins Sans Frontières has been working in the North Caucasus for almost two years. We first intervened in Ingushetia to bring assistance to Ingush refugees from the Prigorodny district in North Ossetia.
In the summer of 1994 we extended our activities to Chechnya from our base in Nazran. Our program focused on helping the medical authorities in their efforts to cope with the cholera epidemic in the eastern part of the republic. We also delivered medical supplies to hospitals where there was an acute shortage of drugs, due partly to the embargo imposed on Chechnya by the Russian authorities.
From September 1994, the increasing tension and medical shortages in Chechnya led us to progressively increase our intervention in response to the ever growing needs.
In early December the “open phase of the crisis” began, and the war broke out. Confronted with the dramatic and ever growing human consequences of the conflict, we considerably expanded our presence and assistance.
From December 1994 until the end of February 1995, we concentrated on assisting the overcrowded hospitals around Grozny and south of the capital. We also reinforced our team in Nazran and began activities in Khasavyurt to bring assistance to the huge numbers of refugees pouring into Ingushetia and Dagestan.
From early March, while continuing our assistance to refugees and displaced people, we tried to help reestablish a minimal degree of medical service in Grozny. This involved the reopening and resupplying of the hospitals and polyclinics devastated by fighting and heavy shelling.
During this same period, we installed permanent medical and surgical missions in the southern part of the country. This permanent presence in the regions which were not yet under the control of the Russian forces was all the more important for the fact that the civilian population was most at risk in these areas threatened by military offensives and bombardments or air raids. Over these three months, we did our best to bring assistance to people in need (particularly displaced persons) and to treat the increasing number of wounded in this region, which was most affected by fighting and shelling.
In mid-February, we installed a medical mission in Kurtchaloi and, at the end of March, another team settled in Chatoi, where it worked until an ultimatum from the Russian military authorities forced it to evacuate on June 2, 1995, along with wounded people under treatment. In the meantime, another surgical team was installed in Vedeno at the beginning of February. In early April, the increasing number of fighters present in the town convinced the team to hand over to a Chechen medical team and to move to Marketi, where it reestablished medical and surgical services for the civilian population.
Despite all our efforts, it must be said that we largely failed to answer all the needs. The reasons for our shortcomings were numerous:
- the extent of the needs,
- the few NGOs present in Chechnya,
- the total absence of UN agencies,
- the lack of diplomatic support by the so called “international community,”
- the obstacles set by the Russian military authorities hindering relief assistance in Chechnya, particularly in war zones,
- and, last but not least, the sheer brutality of this war mainly aimed at civilians, with little respect for relief convoys or medical installations.
I will now discuss the last two points in more detail. First, the problem of gaining access to the victims was very acute in the case of Chechnya. From the end of February, no authorization was given for relief convoys to enter conflict zones. Furthermore, cars were frequently stopped at checkpoints.
Despite these repeated obstacles, we managed to overcome part of the problem by multiplying our supply trips using cars loaded with medicines. In a context of frequent gunfire on roads, this strategy, undertaken at great personal risk by our teams, allowed us to maintain a minimal stock in our hospitals in the south. Although it was an imperfect answer for the problem of medical supply, it was not a solution for general relief—food, shelter, etc.—which was most needed in March and early April, at a time when the southern part of the country was being flooded with displaced people fleeing the heavy bombing in Grozny, Argun, Gudermes and Shali …
At the end of April, the situation improved, partly because many of the displaced people moved northward to try to reestablish themselves in their places of origin or to seek refuge in Ingushetia and Dagestan, and partly because the military authorities were more accommodating in light of the May 9 celebrations in Moscow. But only days after the end of the celebrations, we faced renewed and increasing pressure and obstacles from military authorities.
These obstacles were twofold. First, there were continuous administrative difficulties. Throughout our intervention, we had been suspected of contravening a multiplicity of rules and regulations, sometimes contradictory, on issues such as customs, visas, registration. Such difficulties reflect both the complexity of Russian red tape and the political reticence to allow independent NGOs to intervene in Chechnya. In any event, it greatly reduced our ability to react rapidly and with flexibility to the needs of the population.
Second, there were deliberate attempts by the Russian forces to forbid any kind of assistance for the regions of Chechnya that were not under their control. We had, on many occasions, the strong impression that some military authorities were not willing to make a distinction between civilians and fighters. I myself remember a conversation with a high-ranking general—a true dialogue of the deaf—when our focus on assistance to the civilian population was systematically met with accusations of helping the fighters.
Not withstanding the difficulties encountered by humanitarian organizations, I must highlight the dramatic human consequences of the war.
After the bloody failure of their first attempts to enter Grozny, Russian military authorities adopted a brutal strategy at considerable cost to the civilian population. For several weeks Grozny was subjected to heavy artillery and aviation bombing until Russian forces were able to occupy the ruins.
The gravity of this strategy should not be underestimated. There have been a great number of comparisons in the media between Chechnya and Afghanistan or between Grozny and Beirut or Sarajevo. But If I were to give my personal opinion on the issue, I would say that the tragedy of Grozny reminds me of the fate of Hargeisa, razed to the ground by Siad Barre in 1988, or Hama, when it was submitted to heavy bombardment in February 1982 and then subjected to bloody repression by Syrian security forces. In these three situations national authorities deliberately destroyed large cities on their territory and exposed their own citizens to indiscriminate shelling. The paradox, in the case of Grozny, is that the Russian population was the main victim of the bombings at a time when most Chechen families were able to find refuge with relatives outside the capital.
Once Grozny had been reduced to rubble, other towns such as Argun, Shali and Gudermes were also partly destroyed by indiscriminate shelling without any consideration for the fate of civilians.
This kind of strategy is unacceptable. Indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilian locations—including schools, hospitals—are a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions.
The civilian population was not only the main victim of this war, but it was also, in a way, held hostage and submitted to heavy reprisals and collective punishment. In the event of an act of resistance, the whole village risked being shelled and destroyed.
One consequence of this type of war can now be clearly seen in Chechnya in the overwhelming number of new tombs found in every village or town cemetery. Furthermore, hospitals that were overburdened during the worst periods of shelling also witnessed the direct consequences of this type of war. To take only one example, in Chatoi from May 16 to May 25, our team performed 50 surgical interventions on war-wounded people under general anesthesia. Of these 50 cases, 33 were major operations and most of the wounded were civilians. I should add at this point that during the worst periods, at the end of May, we had to operate in the cellar of a private house because the hospital itself was insufficiently safe in a context of indiscriminate air bombardments.
Apart from indiscriminate shelling and disproportionate attacks on civilian locations, we heard of numerous cases of exactions, executions, looting, and abuses in the period following the fighting. We were also aware of widespread detentions in “filtration points” and prisons with clear violations of human rights, including beating, torture, and mistreatment. In general, it seems that looting and racketeering continued for a long period in many places in Chechnya.
Human rights organizations, though, are better placed to broach these subjects than we are. Our duty is to concentrate on treating the victims, and we have neither the time nor the mandate to undertake systematic inquiries on individual cases of human rights violations. Nevertheless the work of human rights organizations should be given strong support at this stage. The killing still continues under a different guise. War gives way to a cruel cycle of ambush and reprisals. It is therefore more important than ever to call for the respect of human rights.
For our part, we have been trying, since December 1994, to focus the attention of public opinion and democratic countries on the flagrant violations of international humanitarian law in the conflict.
Unfortunately, we have met with very little success. There have been some protests but these have lacked in strength. The European Union postponed, for a while, the signing of an interim agreement. But the climate of the G7 summit in Halifax, Nova Scotia, showed that the general indifference to the Chechens’ fate could easily turn to concession and even connivance with Russia’s leaders.
Not to denounce the utter contempt for civilian lives shown by Russian leadership is most worrying. The excuse of the Chechen crisis being an internal matter doesn’t alter the problem at all. All states, and particularly democratic countries, have an obligation “to respect and to ensure respect” for the Geneva Conventions.
The last year was, for humanitarian organizations, a year of disillusionment. After Rwanda, where genocide was allowed to happen live on TV screens without any reaction from the so-called “international community,” Chechnya now highlights the gap between knowledge and conscience and the fact that the worst may happen in a climate of total impunity.
Chechnya: Moscow’s Revenge
Originally published in Harvard International Review, September 22, 2000, no. 3, vol. 22
The Human Rights Debacle in Chechnya
The period of respite is over. After three years of uneasy calm, Chechnya once more finds itself in the grip of war. The Khasavyurt Accords of August 31, 1996, which brought an end to two years of conflict, were ultimately nothing more than a brief hiatus in the centuries-old confrontation between Russians and Chechens. It did not take long for the excesses generated by the anarchy in Grozny to be manipulated by the cynical maneuvers of the Kremlin oligarchy and for Chechnya to be set once more on the road to confrontation with Russia. It seemed inevitable that Chechnya, marked by two centuries of resistance to Russian colonialism and so recently devastated by fighting (December 1994 to August 1996), would once again fall into a morass of violence and conflict.
After three years, the course of history appears to be repeating itself. It would be comical if it were not so disastrous for Chechnya, Russia, and the Caucasus. This new war will be even crueler than the previous war, which decimated the Chechen population. It will be a more absurd war, too, because neither of the two goals formulated by Russia’s reckless leaders—the “liquidation of terrorists” and the “liberation of Chechnya”—is likely to be achieved. And it will also be a more worrisome war because it casts a particularly harsh light on the present state of Russia’s social and political systems and threatens to drag the entire Caucasus into the dispute.
State in Crisis
For the past three years, Chechnya has been in a state of limbo, tormented both by de facto independence and a state of anarchy that is liable to degenerate into fratricidal conflict. Because the Chechen state has been unable to assert its legitimacy and the Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov has been unable to assert his authority, the country has become a hunting ground for criminal and fundamentalist groups that operate with impunity.
The arrival of Islamic fundamentalist groups known as Wahhabis is one such example. Their arrival was unexpected because they oppose all forms of popular religion, including Sufism, which is dominant in the northern Caucasus. In Chechnya, Islam was established by the Naqshbandiya and Qadiriya Sufi brotherhoods. Identifying with the national resistance movement during the wars of the nineteenth century, these brotherhoods became a central element of Chechen society during the era of Stalinist repression and deportation. Despite its antagonism towards the Sufis, the Wahhabi tradition successfully established itself thanks to the previous war, which profoundly disrupted Chechen society and hardened Chechen attitudes. Although the Wahhabi tradition remains marginal, it has consolidated its influence by offering a framework for socialization to disoriented young people in a devastated country. Fundamentalism did not, however, progress entirely unopposed. When the war ended, the Wahhabis were expelled from many areas, sometimes after armed struggles, as at Gudermes in the summer of 1998. Although the Wahhabis retreated to their strongholds, they continue to exert tremendous influence because of their economic clout. Aided by the blockade imposed by Moscow and the withdrawal of the few humanitarian organizations present in Chechnya, fundamentalist networks have effectively become the only source of external financing in Chechnya.
The Wahhabi groups exhibit considerable potential to destabilize Chechnya, as shown by their armed intervention in neighboring Dagestan. In early August 1999, and again in the following month, Shamil Bassaev and Emir Khattab, a Wahhabi commander of Saudi origin who fought in Chechnya during the last conflict, crossed over to Dagestan with several hundred fighters to assist an Islamic group in the region of Botlikh and Tsumada. This incursion by militant Wahhabis was backed by sponsors from the Middle East and was resisted by Dagestani federal forces. Together with the deadly bomb attacks carried out in Russia in August and September 1999, this military escapade (to which Chechen hard-liners either foolishly committed themselves or into which they allowed themselves to be led) provided the trigger, or the pretext, for Russia’s present war against Chechnya.
Prelude to Renewed Conflict
On August 31, 1996, the Khasavyurt Accords, signed by then Prime Minister Alexander Lebed and Aslan Maskhadov following Russia’s defeat in Grozny, paved the way for a political resolution. Couched in deliberately ambiguous terms, it gave the warring parties five years to stabilize their relationship and recover from the effects of war. Negotiations followed, and an end to the bewildering cycle of resistance and oppression appeared in sight. On December 31, 1996, the last Russian units left Chechen territory.
One month later, Aslan Maskhadov was elected president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in an election recognized as legitimate both by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and by the leaders of the Russian Federation. (The official name for the separatist republic, Ichkeria refers to the mountainous region in southern Chechnya that has been the cradle of resistance to Russian expansionism since the 18th century). Finally, on May 12, 1997, Boris Yeltsin and Maskhadov signed a peace accord at the Kremlin. Under the accord, the two parties, “motivated by the desire to end centuries of confrontation,” made a commitment to “abandon forever the use of force and the threat to use force in all disputes” and to “maintain mutual relations in accordance with the generally accepted principles and standards of international law.” The new agreement seemed to open the door for more peaceful relations and for a settlement on Chechnya’s future status.
The talks, however, broke down. The Chechens were convinced that their military victory earned them the right to political independence, while the Russians insisted on regarding Chechnya as a part of the Russian Federation. In the new Russian government formed under Sergei Kiriyenko, nobody was put in charge of relations with Chechnya. By March 1998, negotiations had reached an impasse even before they had really begun.
The election of Aslan Maskhadov testified to the aspirations of a people weary of war. They expected their president to normalize relations with Russia, to win international recognition for the Chechen republic, and to obtain the funds needed to rebuild the country and kick-start the economy. Moscow did not make this task easy, leaving Maskhadov with no concrete results and no room to maneuver. His position grew weaker with respect to Shamil Basayev and Chechen partisans hostile to Russia. The prospects for peace grew increasingly dim.
On October 1, 1999, after subjecting the villages close to the Dagestan border to three weeks of intensive bombing, the Russian army went on the offensive and penetrated Chechen territory. Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin refused to recognize the legitimacy of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, and federal forces moved to create a “security zone” by occupying the Chechen districts of Naurskaya and Shelkovskaya—traditionally regarded as the least hostile to Russia. Russia initially appeared content to establish a cordon sanitaire and to bomb alleged terrorist bases. Two weeks later, however, the federal army crossed the Terek River, declared its intention to “destroy armed bands throughout the territory,” and began its march on Grozny.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin declared that his military objective was the “reconquest of Chechnya.” This policy shift reflected the irrational Kremlin decision-making process. Today, as in 1994, the fate of Chechnya is in the hands of irresponsible politicians who understand only the language of force and who are incapable of proposing a model for a balanced relationship between Moscow and the countries that made up the former Soviet empire.
This time, however, there is a difference. The Russian people, who in 1994 opposed the “Kremlin’s war” against Chechnya, now wholeheartedly support Putin’s intransigence. Even politicians regarded as “liberals” in the West dare not question this vast outpouring of patriotic fervor, fueled by a media machine manipulated by political authorities and ridden with racist and xenophobic overtones. Even though most Russians admit that Chechnya is not Russia, they see Chechen independence as a violation of Russian territorial integrity. Russia is thus defending borders within its own territory in what Georges Charachidzé calls a “war of independence in reverse.”
In the current conflict, the army’s role is clearer than it was in December 1994, when it was sent to “reestablish constitutional order” in Chechnya and from the outset found itself confronted with civilian protests. Reluctantly drawn into a campaign of repression, the Russian army—ill-prepared, badly organized, and low in morale—was forced to improvise. Today, Russian generals display no scruples about intervening militarily on territory they regard as part of the Russian Federation. The time is long gone when military leaders such as General Boris Gromov either voiced their opposition or resigned. Today, the generals in charge of military operations, including Anatoly Kvashnin, Vladimir Shamanov, and Konstantin Pulikovsky, are all veterans of the previous campaign and are eager to avenge the humiliation of their 1996 defeat. We have come a long way from the ambiguities of the “simple policing operation” of the winter of 1994. War has now been engaged in earnest by leaders who intend to make it total and final. Chechnya is plainly regarded as a territory to reconquer. Gas and electricity have been cut off, a measure not taken during the last conflict. The question of the use of force has also been immediately resolved. During the last conflict the army became accustomed to shooting at civilians. As the summer progressed, federal forces gradually massed around the separatist republic and now number 100,000. Since the bombing of Chechnya began on September 5, 1999, those forces have made extensive use of every means at their disposal: bomber planes, heavy artillery, and even surface-to-surface missiles, which were not used to a large extent three years ago. Nor do Russian forces now rule out the use of new weapons of mass destruction, euphemistically described as “non-orthodox” by their military leaders.
From the first days of the conflict, massive, indiscriminate bombing caused hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee. One hundred fifty thousand managed to find refuge in neighboring Ingushetia until the army seized control of the border at the end of October. Since then, the exodus has slowed to a trickle; border crossings are now very rare. Most of the population has now made its way back to the mountains of southern Chechnya in a frantic bid to escape the Russian steamroller. But the mountains have become a dead end, subject to constant airplane and helicopter fire concentrated in particular on the last remaining road out of Chechnya: the trail that crosses the Caucasus in the direction of Georgia. There is no sanctuary. Chechnya has become a giant human trap in which over half a million displaced people wander back and forth, desperate to escape the bombing.
When this war of destruction with long-distance weapons eventually gives way to “cleansing operations,” the key factor will be the extent to which the generals can occupy the towns while limiting abuses by their soldiers. Given the weaknesses in the chain of command and the erratic discipline among Russian troops, there is a significant risk that the Russian federal forces will again indulge in an orgy of pillaging and massacre. During the last war, “liberated” towns were the setting for large-scale abuses: thousands of men disappeared into “filtration camps” where they were subject to terror and arbitrary mistreatment. There are already persistent reports of arbitrary arrests and summary executions. The situation in Chechnya is beginning to resemble a pogrom. If these murderous practices were to become more widespread, the Chechens would have no choice but to take up arms and the federal forces would again find themselves trapped in a deadly spiral of vengeance and indiscriminate reprisals.
The Chimera of Pacification
The problems raised by the occupation of Chechnya’s towns foreshadow the difficulties to come. Apart from waging a war of destruction, the strategy of the Russian army appears unlikely to offer anything that might normalize the situation. Here, too, the experience of the last war highlights the flaws in Russia’s approach. Three years ago, just as in the 19th century, the Russian military proved incapable of successfully implementing a colonial policy. In the absence of any genuine understanding of Chechen society, Russia’s military operations have always lacked a convincing political rationale. Just as Russia’s leaders have always described the Chechens as primitive beings, cunning and criminal, they have always perceived Chechen society as traditional, fixed, and fragmented. These prejudices partly explain Russia’s inability to comprehend the Chechen condition and Russia’s persistence in waging war and imposing its colonial policy.
Russia’s leaders believe that comprehending Chechnya’s clan system is key to understanding Chechen society. Typical of colonial ethnography, this approach has always led Russians to exaggerate the unchangeable and rigid nature of a society that has in fact been profoundly transformed by a number of political traumas, the most significant of which was deportation. Their approach has also led them to underestimate the political dynamics and particularly the power of the nationalist movement, which is a phenomenon both too “modern” to be integrated into the “tribal” model and too ideologically uncomfortable to be acknowledged without revealing Moscow’s imperialist strategy. The Russians’ tendency to exaggerate the significance of clan divisions explains the failure of their policies of division, which were designed to turn the Chechen conflict into an Afghanistan-type campaign by fomenting a “clan war.” The divisions in Chechen society are certainly very real, as demonstrated by the Chechen leaders’ obsessive fear of a possible civil war. But they are more political than clan based, and Moscow’s clumsy, brutal attempts to divide the country have most often had the effect of unifying the Chechen people.
If Russia’s leaders have never succeeded in undermining the influence and cohesion of the separatists, they have also never been able to convince the Chechen people to accept Moscow’s authority. During the last war, it was clear to all observers that Russia’s so-called “pacification” strategies were erratic and often quite absurd. Even villages reputed to be “pro-Russian” or those that had signed peace accords were bombed, attacked, or pillaged; cooperation with federal forces never offered a guarantee of safety. This time the eyewitness accounts gathered by Western journalists in the officially pacified “security zone” to the north of the Terek River testify to the brutality of federal forces and the climate of suspicion and hostility that reigns in Chechnya.
Russian soldiers have become prisoners of their own propaganda. Their traditional aggression toward the Chechen people is being exacerbated by their erratic discipline. Some units have been manipulating the war on their own while others simply run amok. It is Chechen civilians who must deal with the bloody consequences. Spurred on by their own fears and a healthy supply of vodka, soldiers indulge in pillaging, racketeering, and indiscriminate fighting. The same errors have been repeated throughout history. Moscow’s political options are again receding behind empty promises to pay salaries or pensions and the repeated blunders of its federal forces. Today, just as in the 19th century, Russian troops control only that part of Chechnya in which they happen to be at the time and seem to compensate for their feelings of powerlessness by engaging in acts of violence. In the absence of a coherent policy, the Russians are condemned to try repeatedly to reconquer a population which, though weary of war, is radicalized again and again by the brutality of occupation.
Further limiting the prospects for normalization is the fact that Moscow has no political solution to offer that might convince the Chechens to share the destiny of the Russians. During the last war, the pro-Russian Chechen administration was never able to win the slightest legitimacy, and the reappearance of one of its members, Beslan Gantemirov—now being touted as “the only legitimate authority on Chechen territory”—shows how limited Moscow’s options are. Gantemirov is a former mayor of Grozny, who was in charge of reconstruction programs in the last war. Jailed for embezzlement, he was then hastily summoned from his prison cell in November 1999 to be hailed by Boris Yeltsin as the “representative of the Chechen people.” Unless he wants to lose all credibility, no Chechen leader dares to compromise the republic’s independence. The Kremlin may well have trouble finding a successor to Aslan Maskhadov, whose legitimacy it deliberately undermined on the first day of the armed intervention. The Kremlin would clearly find it much easier to reverse its position on Maskhadov than to gain even the slightest degree of credibility for the puppet regime it seeks to install.
Searching for Solutions
It is clear that war will not help Moscow achieve any of the objectives it declared at the onset of hostilities. Far from bringing Chechnya back into the Russian Federation, the latest war only intensifies the feelings of suspicion and hostility that have built up over two centuries of confrontation. Far from weakening the hard-liners, the war cannot fail to harden the attitudes of the Chechen people and strengthen the cause of those who favor all-out war with Russia. Consequently, Russia’s only solution is negotiation. Sooner or later, Russia must return to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, this war has little to do with Russia’s declared goals in Chechnya, and the decision-making process at the Kremlin is so tortuous that it defies all reason. All democratic nations must try to convince Moscow that it is in its own interest to find a political solution to the conflict.
Western leaders finally understand the ambiguous nature of Russia’s “democratic transition” and are grasping the absurdity of offering unconditional support for Russian policy. Faced with the alarming policy shifts of the “New Russia” and with Russia’s potential to destabilize the Caucasus, democratic nations at last seem ready to remind Russia of the values to which they themselves lay claim.
The West would do well to translate this new firmness into realistic and credible pressure, aimed at encouraging Russian leaders to call a cease-fire and find a political solution to the conflict. Perhaps the best way to achieve this would be to target Russian leaders’ personal investments in the West. Such measures would, in any case, be more effective than empty rhetoric and moralizing, since Russia’s present leaders are past masters at the art of flattering national pride by encouraging a pan-Russian and anti-Western nationalism.
Even if Moscow were to realize that it is in its own interest to search for a political solution to the conflict, it would find it hard to back out now. Even back in August 1996, when it was mired in war, Russia seemed unable to end the bloodbath until Alexander Lebed, amid power struggles at the Kremlin, managed, as his final act, to commit his country to the search for a negotiated solution. The way out of the current crisis will again be dependent upon electoral affairs, financial scandals, alliances within the circles of power, and a host of other factors only marginally related to Chechnya or the Caucasus.
Even supposing the Russians decide to commit themselves to the search for a negotiated solution, it would not be easy for those negotiations to begin. After all, with whom are the Chechens to negotiate? On the Chechen side, Aslan Maskhadov is still a legitimate negotiating partner, even if he is not totally in control of the situation. On the Russian side, on the other hand, there are few trustworthy negotiating partners. How can the Chechens trust a regime that every three years subjects its population to indiscriminate bombing with weapons of massive destruction?
Western nations have an essential role to play in helping Russia out of the morass. Even if Chechnya were an internal Russian affair, democratic nations cannot possibly remain passive in the face of this conflict. The means being employed are simply unacceptable and in violation both of the “demands of public conscience” and of Russia’s obligations as a member of the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and the United Nations. If unchecked, the fighting in Chechnya threatens to destabilize the entire Caucasus region while spelling disaster for the Russian people and their political system.